The global sandwich revolution
We now spend three billion a year on sandwiches and sales are up six per cent this year. Not bad for an industry that’s only been going in its ready-made, packed-in-a-box format for just over 30 years. Our busy, 'grab it and run' meal culture has made the sandwich even more ubiquitous. It’s now something (and I find this hard to grasp) that we eat for breakfast and supper as well as lunch, but as Bee Wilson (author of Sandwich: A Global History) said on this week’s Food Programme, so many sandwiches are just plain boring. There’s a cornucopia of choice as you face the chill cabinet, but when you open up the cheese thingy on granary, the prawn thingy on white or the chicken thingy on wholewheat, all of them glooped-up with mayonnaise, so many taste depressingly similar.
However the sandwich world is changing. The cheap sandwich will probably always be with us on the high street, but now there’s a new wave of fresh, delicious, culturally rich sandwiches being made in the capital. This new wave is influencing the big manufacturers making sandwiches for the high street chains and the big retailers.
There are five big sandwich manufacturers in the UK. We went to Buckingham Foods in Milton Keynes, owned, in a sign of the times, by the private equity firm Adelei Foods Group, to find out how they turn out a million sandwiches a week for Sainsbury’s. It’s a science: the sandwiches are made from precisely engineered (not GM!) tomatoes with the minimum of moisture, lollo rosso bred to develop small circles of leaves so that there’s nothing to chop, and enzyme-enhanced bread to retain freshness for up to three days. But beyond the lab and the production line the company's scouts are always on the prowl for new taste sensations they can adapt for the mass market.
And we don’t have to look far for inspiration. In the programme, Daniel Young of food blog Young and Foodish visited Broadway Market in East London to sample what many people think is the best Vietnamese Bánh mì in the UK. Bánh mì (pronounced Bang Mee) is a relic of the French occupation of Vietnam – traditional baguettes filled with slow-cooked pork, herbs and pâté that had Daniel and food writer Richard Johnson in taste heaven. It’s sold by two city workers Anh and Van who were finalists in last month’s British Street Food Awards.
Plus there’s Sam Singh (another City boy in search of a new life through sandwiches) in Soho making moolis - Indian street-food sarnies based on rotis, which are made fresh every day in their roti-maker. Long-cooked goat is the big seller. Just a couple of tube stops toward the City brought Daniel to the Moo Grill, which turns out authentic lomitos from Argentina: a rich but not overwhelming mix of steak, egg, lettuce, tomato and ham in a soft, grilled bun. If I were going to eat sandwiches three times a day that’s the way to go.
What’s your idea of the perfect sandwich filling? Are you a traditionalist or are you starting a revolution in your own lunchbox?
Shelia Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.